Watching the sold-out crowd stream into the Backyard on Sunday afternoon to attend Willie Nelson’s “official” 80th birthday party concert was like watching an unwinding mosaic of the audiences who have been coming to see him in the 40-plus years since he moved to Austin: all ages, all stations in life; hippie sandals and cowboy boots that look like they’ve seen their share of feedlots; silky sundresses and polyester pearl-snap Western shirts; fancy Resistol toppers and feedstore gimme caps; a multitude of red bandannas and generations of Willie concert T-shirts.
In some ways it was timeless, the re-enactment of a modern Texas ritual — Willie Nelson, singing under a cloudless spring sky in the Texas Hill Country.
But time slips away. And this time the evening at the Backyard was running along parallel emotional tracks. On the one hand, there was the celebration of a favorite native son and musical icon (University of Texas Longhorn coach Mack Brown presented him with yet another plaque before the show began). On the other, the show had been re-purposed as a benefit to aid the people in West after the massive explosion that leveled a portion of the city and killed 14, including many first-responders, less than two weeks before.
The twin moods, celebratory and solemn, vied with one another all night. (There was another birthday celebrated Sunday night — the Backyard, founded by Nelson’s longtime running buddy and sometimes partner Tim O’Connor, turned 20.)
The town of West is in Nelson’s literal backyard, a few miles south of his hometown of Abbott. Some of his first gigs, with polka bands and Bud Fletcher’s swing band, were at venues like the SPJST Hall in town and, later, West-area honky-tonks such as the Nite Owl and Shadowland.
“He’s real emotional” about the event, said his former wife, Connie Nelson, who had talked with Nelson a good deal that day. “If he doesn’t know them personally, he probably has met everybody in the town of West at one time or another.”
According to Lexi Beerman, the daughter of Jill Beerman who founded the ATX Mafia design company, Nelson heard about the custom T-shirt they were designing for the event (“Small Towns, Big Hearts/Texas Strong” on the front, “West, We’ve Got Your Back” on the flip side) and expressed an interest. The company sold the shirts to him at cost and in turn would send the profits to the West, Texas, Victims’ Fund.
Two busloads of residents and first responders from West and Abbott were transported in for the show. Signed photos, raffle items and firefighters caps were sold to raise money.
Resplendent in matching bandannas and faux-braids, Leonard Pate and Gina Cruz made themselves comfortable in a shady spot under the oaks. Though both are from nearby Kyle, this was their first time to see Nelson. After the events in West, the show acquired an added resonance. “When we had a chance to go, we really wanted to do so,” Pate said. “But when we found out it was a benefit, we said, absolutely, we gotta go.”
Added Cruz, “I really respect what he’s doing.”
The show was a family affair, with Nelson’s daughters Amy and Paula and son Lukas all presenting sets with their own ensembles, and another son, Micah, sitting in on drums and percussion with Lukas and Willie. Lukas is also a regular performer with his dad’s Family Band. During their sets, both Paula and Lukas tipped their hats to the old man with versions of “I Never Cared For You” and “Angel Flying Too Close To the Ground.”
Though the night was suffused with good wishes, both for Willie and the people of West, Nelson, for whatever strategic reason, chose to mention neither his birthday nor the catastrophe once he took the stage around 8:30 p.m.
Perhaps he was choked up; perhaps he wanted his music’s redemptive powers to speak for itself. As he sings in “Still Is Still Moving To Me,” “It’s hard to explain what I feel/It won’t go in words but I know that it’s real.”
In any event, he turned in a solid 21-song set that was a diverse distillation of the better part of a century spent in music: timeless classics (“Georgia,” his own “Crazy” and “Night Life”) and throwaways (“Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” “Beer For My Horses”); the exotic (the smoky Spanish vibe of “Nuages” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”) and the down-to-earth (“Whiskey River” and a gritty “Matchbox Blues”); tongue-in-cheek (“Good Hearted Woman”) and reverent (the set-closing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I Saw the Light”) with family, friends and guests (including Randy Travis and David Allan Coe) crowding around the mics.
At the end, the assembly sang a ragged chorus of “Happy Birthday” and some West EMS representatives presented Nelson with a T-shirt and a signed firefighters’ helmet.
It probably wasn’t the 80th birthday party Willie Nelson originally envisioned for himself. But it all worked out. It might have been Willie’s birthday, but it was the people of West who got the gift.
Tuesday is Willie Nelson’s 80th birthday. See more photos from Sunday night’s Backyard show, our video birthday greeting and our birthday photo gallery (it’s not too late to add yours). Plus a Willie song list and many more stories about the country legend and the Family Band.